Role of sports in advancing social justice focus of MLK event

The role of sports in advancing racial justice and equity was the focus of The Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology’s (EHE) Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Event, held Jan. 24 at the Blackwell Inn and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

EHE presented the event in partnership with Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Communication, the Sports and Society Initiative, and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

“We’re in this space right now where the intersection of sports and politics and engagement occurs in different ways in our community,” EHE Dean Don Pope-Davis said during the opening session at the Blackwell Inn.  

Pope-Davis kicked off the event with a conversation with Malcolm Jenkins, former Ohio State Buckeyes and National Football League football player, entrepreneur and television commentator.

Jenkins holds a bachelor’s degree in strategic communication from Ohio State and is the first Black professional athlete to be awarded a visiting fellowship at the Harvard Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. He is recognized as one of the NFL’s all-time great defensive leaders, winning Super Bowl championships in New Orleans and Philadelphia as well as three Pro Bowl honors during his 13-year NFL career.

Beyond his accomplishments on the field, Jenkins said he strives to make a positive difference in the lives of youth in underserved communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and his home state of New Jersey through The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation. The organization provides programs that promote education, leadership, character development, and health and recreation.

Jenkins said his time at Ohio State helped him realize that students can use their voices to bring about social change.  

“Any social movement around the world, the majority of it is probably carried by college students, young people, the people with the energy, the fresh knowledge and a new perspective on how they want to affect the world,” he said, “and have enough collective minds to actually do it.”

Following the conversation with Pope-Davis, Jenkins participated in a panel discussion with Gene Smith, Ohio State senior vice president and Wolfe Foundation Endowed Athletic Director, and Kevin Warren, the newly named president and CEO of the Chicago Bears and former commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. Nicole Auerbach, who covers college football for The Athletic, moderated the discussion.

Ohio State encourages student-athletes to get involved in community service through the Eugene D. Smith Leadership Institute and the Buckeyes Care program, Smith said. On the national observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this year, Ohio State football players participated in service projects at the King Arts Complex in Columbus, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is educate them across a lot of different areas,” he said. “Our student-athletes eventually find a way to get engaged in the community. Some of them determine on their own, organically, what they want to be involved in. We want to encourage that.”

During his tenure as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Warren instituted the Big Life Series, a collection of events to provide conference student-athletes with transformational and educational experiences. In July 2022, Ohio State student-athletes, coaches and administrators were among 100 participants in Big Life Series: Selma to Montgomery, which visited several civil rights landmarks, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday attack.

“Why that was so powerful is the fact of knowing what an impact that a day can have,” Warren said. “I just wanted to make sure that we collectively came up with that day, that weekend that 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now … our student-athletes are going to be talking about it.”

EHE’s Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Event continued with a screening of the documentary “Behind the Shield: The Power of Politics & the NFL” at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The screening concluded with a panel discussion about the issues explored in the documentary with Jenkins, sportswriter and filmmaker Dave Zirin and Kwame Agyemang, associate professor of sport management. Nicole Kraft, associate professor in the School of Communication, moderated the discussion.

Zirin said Jenkins and other athletes who use their positions to effect positive change in society serve as role models to young people who want to do the same.

“People get surprised that the film ends on a note of hope. That hope is because of people like yourself,” Zirin told Jenkins during the discussion.

Agyemang said that while Black athletes like Jenkins are leading the way in bringing awareness to social-justice issues, the participation of athletes of all backgrounds is necessary to bring about lasting change.

“We need allies,” said Agyemang, who is Black. “I can say all these things about social justice, racial justice, but I’m not in the majority.”

Well-known athletes and everyday people alike can make a difference by speaking out, Jenkins said.

“We all have a sphere of influence,” he said. “It’s not about how big of a ripple you can make, it’s did you do something?”

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